Integration, not isolation, is the solution
The very size of India has put it in an overarching spot in South Asia.
That’s a geopolitical reality, and India’s neighbours need to deal with the fact smartly. While we often complain about India’s obsession with Pakistan — largely for wrong reasons — in the sub-continent neglecting other promising neighbours, we Bangladeshis do the same too in a different way.
We fix our eyes on Delhi, ignoring Guwahai, Agartala, Shilchor, Shilong, Aizol, and even Kolkata. We fail to realize the vastness of the region, and don’t grasp the idea of the eastern sub-region where Bangladesh potentially has a central role.
After the revolutionary event of 1971 in Bangladesh, the counter revolutionary forces struck back since 1975, and manipulatively instilled harmful anti-Indian politics in the country. Even the moderate Awami League is now cautious to step too much out of that.
Bangladesh saw numerous mutually-benefial initiatives of sub-regional cooperation especially with the Indian northeast, but we kept saying “no” to them by and large.
We are obsessed with the shinier regions like Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, and Bangalore, but the economically backward northeastern states who are isolated from mainstream India, often looked to us. But we didn’t quite gaze back. To understand the dynamic, one has to look at the map of the eastern sub-region of the sub-continent.
Bangladesh separates the Indian northeast, which is more than double the size of Bangladesh geographically, from India proper. A mere few miles wide, the Shiliguri corridor, called the chicken’s neck, just somehow connects the northeast to India, and that chicken’s neck is delicately placed closed to the Chinese border, making India a bit nervous about the defense of the northeastern seven sisters.
Apart from defense, the seven sister states have other serious issues, for a few of which, Bangladesh is blamed. For the rest, they need Bangladesh’s help. The primary accusation is the infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslim economic migrants to those states, and the demographic changes thereof in those places.
This is a complex issue with partial truth and partial falsehood. The truth is, many parts of Assam’s Barak valley and lower Brahmaputra valley already had a high percentage of Muslim minorities during the 1947 Partition, and not many of them moved to the then East Pakistan, despite the strong reverse current of Hindu migration to the Indian northeast.
There were complex socio-economic and political reasons for that. There was a trend, lately under British revenue collectors’ patronage, of expert Bengali Muslims cultivators moving into Assam from central Bengal, which originally started in medieval time, to clear jungles and create farmlands.
It might have continued to some extent after 1947, perhaps till the 1980s. Indian authorities never thought it a big issue, and never tried to stop it until the agitation of the 1980s in Assam. This spontaneous migration certainly wasn’t engineered or state-sponsored, and has stopped now as the Indian authorities wanted it to, due to discontent in Assam.
We fix our eyes on Delhi, ignoring Guwahai, Agartala, Shilchor, Shilong, Aizol, and even Kolkata
The same might have happened to a much lesser degree in other places of the northeast, eg Tripura. However, a decade or more old immigrants at a place also have some universally recognized rights. People can’t be disenfranchised instantly. Also, the Indian citizen Bengali Muslims of Assam and other parts of the northeast mustn’t be confused as Bangladeshi immigrants.
Given Bangladesh’s relatively impressive improvement in economic condition in the last three decades, which is certainly better than Assam’s or Tripura’s, there isn’t enough reason to believe in the alleged migration in recent decades.
However, there were and are ways to compensate Assam and Tripura and the rest of the northeast by Bangladesh; which is allowing them the much-needed connectivity through Bangladesh to main India and even to the rest of the world. It would have been immensely useful to Tripura, Barak valley, Mizoram, and Manipur to connect to north and central India and West Bengal, reducing several hundred kilometers in critical distance, and saving cost and time hugely.
It could have been done under a bigger sub-regional vision package, which could have included mutually beneficial trade, tourism, investment, power supply, etc. Bangladesh, by far, is the biggest economic power in the eastern sub-region of South Asia, and it would have had the central position in the entire affair.
Similarly, allowing use of the Chittagong port by the Indian northeast, Nepal, and Bhutan would have allowed further growth of Bangladesh-centered BBIN network, enhancing Bangladesh’s positive influence in the sub-region. Bangladesh’s good gesture could have built a lasting bond with the Indian northeast, and would have neutralized the bone of contention, ie “alleged Bangladeshis in Assam.”
Being frustrated at Bangladesh, some right-wing Indian strategists are even thinking of using Myanmar’s Sittwe port, located in troubled Rakhine, for their northeast, rather than demanding again for Chittagong’s service. This is another reason for the India-Myanmar coziness, and Bangladesh’s lack of Indian support on the Rohingya issue.
But the positive development on sub-regional connectivity and economic cooperation would also have helped prevent the harmful right wing rise in the northeast, which was a long time coming.
Bangladesh doesn’t have good geo-strategists, and the ones it has can’t see things in depth or far ahead enough.
The situation might get even more difficult for Bangladesh if there is an attempt of pushing Bengali Muslims of the northeast into Bangladesh by the Indian government, as a result of right wing pressure from those areas. Does Bangladesh have any prevention strategy for that?
Sub-regional connectivity, trade, and network development around Bangladesh would have solved most of these complex problems between the Indian northeast and Bangladesh by creating interdependence.
That would have brought great economic dividends for Bangladesh, as more and more Bangladeshi products are making their way to various parts of India. East and northeast India are best placed for Bangladeshi products.
And of course, there are other mutually beneficial trade, investment, and power import opportunities.
Across the globe, integration rather than isolation is the dominant problem solving method. Are we, the Bangladeshis, on board (better late than never), or are we still blinded by cooked up and harmful anti-Indian hysteria?
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune. He works for a financial services institute